Even though more than a century has passed since the death of the celebrated American humorist and essayist Mark Twain, who died in 1910, the anniversary is still commemorated at his birth town, and his childhood home has been made into a museum. Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, came from a small town in the rural American state of Missouri. As a young man, he adopted Twain as his pen name, which became so popular that few today would recognise him by his birth name.
Struggling as a journalist, Twain had a lucky break when his story, Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog, was accepted for publication by many papers across the country. He realised that he had an uncanny talent for writing travel stories and soon embarked on a tour of Europe and the Middle East to pursue that vocation. His stories from abroad, liberally embellished with wit and humor, became very popular with the American audience. Some of his funny observations have become enduring aphorisms in the English language. When in May 1887, a London newspaper falsely reported that Twain had died penniless in London, the humorist in good health, famously quipped, “The reports of my death are grossly exaggerated.”
Twain’s most famous work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a novel published in 1884, in which he denounces the institution of slavery and the mistreatment of African Americans in the 19th century. It is recognised as one of the foremost contributions to English literature.
Twain made a lot of money from his publishing business. Besides, his wife was a wealthy woman in her own right. Yet, he lost all of it by making unwise investments. The family eventually became penniless and was in heavy debt. To recoup these losses, he planned a European tour, where he took to performing as a standup comedian, reading passages from his books and writings. He, with wife and daughter, went on to Australia, New Zeeland, Ceylon, India and South Africa.
Twain had little to say about the Taj Mahal. He had read so much about it beforehand that it offered no surprises
In a new book, Chasing the Last Laugh, Richard Zacks, a prolific American writer and an historian, has documented many details of Twain’s life. Some of these had not been known previously.The author has drawn upon his extensive research into unpublished documents and archives, preserved at the University of California, Berkeley library. The account is heavily enriched with quotations from Twain, borrowed from his writings or unpublished notes.
Of all the travel accounts included, perhaps that of Twain’s tour of India is most interesting.His three-month-long lecture tour, from the 18th of January to the 31st of March 1896, was an adventure for which he found himself wholly unprepared. On arriving at Bombay from Ceylon, the party was lodged in one of the finest hotels of the city, a four-storey Moorish-Victorian palace. To the delight of the family, it had electric lights that stayed on until midnight, a rare luxury in those days.Since the primitive hotel elevator was not working, Twain noted that seventeen porters were required to carry their modest baggage to their rooms upstairs. The last two each carried only a cigar tin and an umbrella. He was shocked as he watched the degrading treatment meted out to the servants by the hotel’s German manager, who casually slapped them for minor infractions, evoking the memory of the treatment of black slaves back home.
Yet, he was entranced by the ‘exotic’ sights and unfamiliar sounds of India and noted, “The lobbies and halls were full of turbaned, and fez’d, and embroidered, Cap’d, and barefooted, cotton-clad dark natives, some of them rushing about, others at rest squatting, or sitting on the ground.” He was so enthralled with the quaint experiences he had in India that years later, he was to wistfully recall it as “the only foreign land I ever daydream about and long to see again.”
While in Bombay, Twain was invited to lunch with the governor of the province, Lord Sandhurst, who resided in the magnificent palace on Malabar Hill, offering a panoramic view of the sea. The governor’s office and its regal trappings showcased the power and majesty of the British Raj in India. Twain had leveled scathing criticism at the repression which the native population suffered in South Africa, Australia and the United States. However, he thought British rule had brought many benefits to India, including the railways, telegraph, hospitals and schools. He was intrigued that some 150,000 white British – only half of them soldiers – were able to rule over a population of 300 million brown-skinned natives.
Though largely confined to interactions with a white ruling elite, he was invited to the wedding of the daughter of a wealthy Hindu merchant in Bombay. Their carriage negotiated the narrow streets which were dead at the late night hour, except for a few occasional candle lamps that did little or nothing to reduce the darkness. The pavements and streets served as beds for many bodies that lay there huddled, disturbed only byoccasional scampering rats. The guests were greeted by the bride, “A trim and comely little twelve-year-old dressed in black velvet pants,” who wore a diamond-studded necklace. Her future husband, also twelve-years old, had already retired to bed.
Twain visited Calcutta, the seat of the Government from where the viceroy, Lord Elgin, a dour Scotsman, ruled the vast country with unquestioned authority. He was invited to attend the Supreme Legislative Council session,which only the provincial governors and Indian princes were entitled to attend. The seating order for the native princes was strictly by status – based on the number of gun salutes that they were entitled to. The higher the number, the closer he sat to the viceroy. A mild commotion was caused when a Maharaja unexpectedly showed up and everyone had to stand up to change places to seat him in accordance with his rank.
On a trip to the princely state of Baroda at the invitation of the Maharaja to stage a show, the family was met at the railway station “with an elegant gilt carriage, with a driver and three footmen.” Going through a thick forest, they came face to face with three large gray apes nonchalantly crossing the road, making them a little nervous. They were taken to the stately elephant stable where thirty elephants and sixteen howdahs embroidered in gold, silver and ivory owned by the prince were housed. Invited to ride an elephant, Twain agreed. Later, commenting to his daughter, he admitted, “I took the elephant ride only reluctantly, very afraid all the while, especially when the mahout walked away,”
Twain’s trip to the hill station of Darjeeling in Bengal to stage his show exposed him to some of the most spectacular natural scenery in the world, the awe-inspiring views of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain. The British had built a special, narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, now designated as a world heritage site, to reach Darjeeling, some 7,000 feet above sea level. That was the summer seat of the government of Bengal. The train provided crucial transportation facilities to many British tea planters who owned lucrative tea plantations around the hill station, producing some 8 million pounds of high-quality tea per year. It took the steam engine 7-8 hours to climb the 40 miles, labouring at a speed of 7 miles per hour. Darjeeling, with a population of 155,000, was a replica of a small English town set in the Himalayas, with tennis courts, creeping English roses, bungalows, a stone clock tower and Protestant churches, all designed to make the Englishmen feel at home. The book quotes the French writer, Andre Chevrillon, “Of all the races living abroad, the English adapt themselves the least to foreign cultures.”
The Twains were disappointed that the mountains were often shrouded in clouds, denying them a clear view of their snowcapped peaks. However, his show attended as usual by British soldiers and tea planters was a big success. Moving on to Agra, the family visited the Taj Mahal, both in the day and in the moonlit night. Twain had little to say of any significance about this symbol of eternal love. He noted that he had read so much beforehand that it offered no surprises.
Twain left India after visiting several cities during the three-month sojourn. His account of India spotlights the wide gulf that separated the white ruling race and their subjects, the dark Indians. He observed that the latter only served in subservient positions, with little interaction on a social level occurring between rulers and their subjects.
For Mark Twain, the lecture tour was a financial bonanza, as it wiped out most of his debts!